There's no better time to take a first look at Madden NFL 08 than the weekend when the NFL welcomes an entirely new group of stars into its ranks--the 2007 NFL Draft. Last year's draft was notable for a number of reasons--the snub of Reggie Bush as the number one overall pick for Mario Williams, as well as the draft of the player who would eventually be Madden NFL 08 cover athlete, the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young.
Nearly everyone, of course, expected LaDanian Tomlinson to make the cover. With 31 touchdowns and a league MVP award, it seemed only natural that the San Diego Chargers running back was a shoo-in for the cover of EA Sports' latest football game. Yet, when the time came for the announcement, it was Vince who took the honor, and only after LT turned it down. So what can we take away from the announcement of VY as the cover athlete Madden NFL 08? Well, for one, the publisher is hoping to avoid the so-called "Madden curse" with Vince: He's young (heading into his sophomore season in the NFL), big and strong, and seemingly impervious to harm from would-be tacklers.
But what does another quarterback on the cover of Madden mean for gameplay? After all, in previous seasons, the cover athlete was a sort of herald for what to expect from the game. Think of Madden NFL 2005's Ray Lewis and the defensive hit stick, or last year's game featuring Shaun Alexander and better blocking and run controls. Does Vince Young's cover mean a radically altered passing system, such as the passing cone from Madden 06 or a brand new way of looking at the field? Well, no, not really. Instead, much like VY's fundamentally sound play, Madden NFL 08 seems to be taking a back-to-basics approach to its on-the-field play, righting some wrongs and getting itself well and truly settled into the next generation of gaming.
This will, after all, be Madden's third appearance on the Xbox 360 and second for the PlayStation 3. During a recent EA Tiburon press event featuring an early look at the game, the Madden series producers were forthcoming about the team's need to balance the creation of a great-looking game with controls that are flexible. And it's clear they feel the two aspects aren't mutually exclusive. As producers put it, for the third year of Madden on the Xbox 360, it's time to start putting in the features they've always wanted in the game. These include such things as gang tackles, owner mode, the lateral, an upgraded fatigue system, improved defensive artificial intelligence; all of these features and more will be part of Madden NFL 08.
It starts with overhauled animations, specifically tons of new branching animations. How many times in previous Madden games did you throw to a tight end or wideout near the sidelines, only to have the animation take the guy out of bounds when he clearly could have gained a few more yards by staying in bounds? According to producers, that will be a thing of the past, thanks to branching animation that was borrowed from another EA property: NBA Street Homecourt. No, you won't be watching Reggie Wayne execute triple backflips into the end zone, but on those crossing routes where he's heading to the sidelines, you'll likely see him plant his feet once he's hauled in the ball and angle upfield to gain those crucial extra yards.
It seems branching animations will be visible in practically every part of gameplay. A gameplay video featuring Tomlinson showed the running back making an up-the-middle sprint through his offensive line, juking and spinning early for extra yards. The big benefit of this new branching technology seems to be more animation "breaking points" wherein the player holding the controller regains control of the player on the field quicker than ever before. Just as in NBA Street, taking control of a player in Madden 08 will let you "break" animations quicker, allowing the player to move on to the next move, juke, or spin. During that same LT run video, which featured the running back breaking a tackle, producers pointed out that the player will have control of the on-field player earlier than ever before; in this case, the moment LT begins to slip through the fingers of the would-be tackler.
And speaking of tackling, gang-tackles that were long missing from the series debuted in the PlayStation 3 version of Madden NFL 07 and will now spread to include every version of Madden 08. As producers demonstrated in a video, tacklers can be added on to a pile at any point when trying to bring down a ball carrier; equally important, tackles can be shed dynamically thanks to the aforementioned branching animation technology. One particularly cool video example of this showed Tomlinson, wrapped up by a defender, make a spin move, only to have an incoming defender run into the defender that first wrapped up LT, knocking him off the running back and letting Tomlinson gain a few more yards in the process.
Equally important as to what will be included in Madden 08 is what's being taken out. Take jetpacking, for instance, which is a common term referring to Madden wide receivers that are able to leap unnaturally high to catch passes. That's gone in the current-generation versions of the game, according to producers, which is just one of the steps taken to improve the overall performance of wide receivers (and defensive backs) in the game. For receivers, situational awareness is going to be a big part of Madden 08. Possession receivers will be able to better perform screens more effectively; more importantly, they'll be in better position to head upfield once in possession of the ball. When playing as a receiver, you'll be able to trigger a possession catch (that is, putting the priority on catching the ball as opposed to getting yards after the catch) with the press of a button. As a result, receivers will hold on to the ball better, survive midair collisions, and resist attempts at ball strips. You can also expect to see loads of new animations, such as receivers falling down in the end zone during touchdown catches, lots of juggling animations, and more. Also, wideout-specific player ratings, such as "spectacular catches" and "catch in traffic," will play a bigger role in how your receivers perform on the field. In another twist to the wideout role, you'll be able to take control of a wide receiver for an entire play if you like, run your route, and make the catch. If you're playing with a buddy in co-op mode (which will be reintroduced to the series for Madden 08), you can call for the ball and it will rumble the controller of your partner to signify you're open.
On the defensive side of the passing game, the new tackling animations look to play a huge role in how you defend against big-time receivers. Madden 08 producers said they are looking to make collisions matter a great deal more for receivers who cross over the middle and put their bodies on the line to go up for a ball. This means that defenders will be able to take out a guy's legs and collide with him in midair, perhaps even jarring the ball loose in the process. The intended result is to make the player on offense think twice before putting his star receiver out over the middle and hanging him out to dry. Guys will drop the ball. Worse yet, guys can get hurt. That, in addition to defensive hot route controls and rewritten deep zone coverage artificial intelligence intended to fix many of the inevitable money plays of years past, should mean a beefed-up pass defense in the game. Both man-on-man and zone coverage has been improved in Madden 08 so that a zone specialist like John Lynch will play better and react quicker when you're using him in a zone situation. Though we don't have details yet, as a player, you'll have a better idea of how all the players on the field match up with one another and be able to tell who your "man coverage" guys are versus your "zone coverage" guys. When we guessed, during the Q&A session with the producers about an improved match-up stick feature, producers nodded and replied, "Something like that..." with a smile. There will be more to come on that feature in the near future.
However, AI upgrades aren't just for safeties. The Madden team said players can expect AI improvement practically across the board. You might notice it most obviously in the play of AI quarterbacks. As producers told us, there will be improvements to QB decision-making, accuracy, and power. Peyton Manning will be able to pick your team apart if you let him, and Rex Grossman...well, as Bears fans, let's just say there will be a big difference between Rex and Peyton--and leave it at that. The CPU players will be more apt to strip the ball in certain situations, and they'll be better at it than in years past. Last year's lead blocking system will be in place in Madden 08, but you can expect blocking improvements all across the game, according to producers. Double team blocking, zone blocking, pull/lead blocks, players pushing off to the next blocking assignment, stretch and reach blocks... dare we say this is "next generation blocking"? Running backs will also benefit from a distinctive lack of "Mario running" this year. Instead of jamming up against the line and running in place, how a back reacts will depend on his size; big backs like Lorenzo Neal will look to push the line forward for an extra few yards, while smaller, elusive backs like Warrick Dunn will wait for an opening, or spin and juke their way through the beefy linemen.
When it comes to improvements to gameplay, it seems the team's essential goal is in finding balance. For every move on the field, there should be a counter move that a player can use to offset it. Going up against a receiver with a huge "spectacular catch" rating? Take him out in midair and hope for the ball to come loose. About to be bowled over by a rumbling, stumbling monster like T.J. Duckett? Take advantage of what producers are calling "hitstick 2.0," where flicking down on the controller will cause the defender to go low and attempt to take out the legs of your much bigger opponent (pushing up will result in a higher tackle, which will be ideal for taking out runners who are looking to leap over the pile on short yardage situations).
Player fatigue has been a sore point in the past few Madden entries, and the team has taken that into consideration with Madden 08, blowing out the feature this time around. As producers put it, every action on the field will count against a player's fatigue rating. If you spend time scrambling around in the background with Michael Vick, sooner or later, he's going to wear out. In addition, temperature and location will make a difference to your player's performance. Think of the thin frigid air at Mile High in December or the sweltering late-summer heat in Miami. Just as in real life, those kinds of conditions will have an effect on how your team plays. This improved focus on fatigue should definitely affect how you play the game. Do you go run-and-gun to tire out your opponent's defensive backs or grind it out with your running backs to punish your foe's defensive line? Furthermore, you'll want to stay aware of your player's fatigue ratings as the game progresses. Calling a no huddle after you just sent your wideouts on streaks downfield may be a bad idea. In fact, taking your time snapping the ball will actually benefit your players because they get a chance to catch their breath before the next play.
By seemingly focusing on the core elements of gameplay, it seems like Madden NFL 08 is off to a fine start. You can surely expect to see returning features like superstar mode, as well as the introduction of some new wrinkles to the package (or, in the case of owner mode, new/old wrinkles). But, by focusing on the gridiron action first and foremost, it seems like EA Tiburon is taking a back-to-basics approach to the game. We'll see how this approach plays out as we bring you more coverage on Madden NFL 08 in the coming months.